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SCOTUS Rules Eighth Amendment’s Ban On Excessive Fines Applies To States

by | Feb 26, 2019 | Business Litigation

Timbs v. Indiana, ___ U.S. ___, No. 17-1091 (20 February 2019)
Eighth Amendment; excessive fines
Tyson Timbs pled guilty in Indiana state court to dealing in heroin and conspiracy to commit theft. He was sentenced to one year of home detention and five years of probation, including addiction-treatment. He was also required to pay fees and costs totaling $1,203.
At the time of his arrest, the police seized his vehicle, a Land Rover SUV that Timbs had purchased, paying for it with money received from an insurance policy when his father died. The State brought a civil lawsuit for forfeiture of Timbs’s Land Rover, charging that the vehicle had been used to transport heroin. The trial court denied the requested forfeiture, observing that Timbs had recently bought the vehicle for $42,000, more than four times the maximum $10,000 monetary fine assessable against him for his drug conviction. The court determined that the fine would be grossly disproportionate to the gravity of Timbs’s offense and unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause. Indiana’s Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Excessive Fines Clause constrains only federal action and is inapplicable to state impositions.
The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. The Court held that the prohibition against excessive fines is “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty,” with deep roots in our history and tradition. McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U.S. 742, 767 (2010). The Excessive Fines Clause is therefore incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and applies to the states.
When ratified in 1791, the Bill of Rights applied only to the Federal Government, but the constitutional amendments adopted in the aftermath of the Civil War fundamentally altered the country’s federal system. McDonald, 561 U.S. at 754. With only a few exceptions, the Court has held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause incorporates the protections in the Bill of Rights rendering them applicable to the States. A Bill of Rights protection, such as the protection against excessive fines, is incorporated if it is fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty and deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and tradition.
The Excessive Fines Clause traces its venerable lineage back to at least 1215 when Magna Carta prohibited excessive fines. Magna Carta required that economic sanctions by proportioned to the wrong and not be so large as to deprive the offender of his livelihood. Browning-Ferris Industries of Vt., Inc. v. Kelco Disposal, Inc., 492 U.S. 257, 271 (1989). The English Bill of Rights reaffirmed Magna Carta by providing that “excessive Bail ought not to be required, nor excessive Fines imposed; nor cruel and unusual Punishment inflicted.” Across the Atlantic, this familiar language was adopted almost verbatim, first in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, then in the Eighth Amendment which states: “Excessive Bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments be inflicted.” When the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868, the constitutions of 35 of the 37 States expressly prohibited excessive fines. Thus, the prohibition against excessive fines is deeply rooted in our history and tradition.
This is a unanimous decision. Justice Thomas wrote a concurring opinion in which he criticized the majority for basing its decision on the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause rather than on the Privileges and Immunities Clause. Justice Thomas contended that the Due Process Clause speaks only to “process” and not substantive rights; thus, the majority necessarily invokes the “oxymoronic substantive due process doctrine” that has no basis in the Constitution and has led to notoriously incorrect decisions.
Justice Thomas’s rationale for relying on the Privileges and Immunities Clause is straightforward. When the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified it was well-established that the protection against excessive fines was an inalienable right. At that time, it was generally understood that an inalienable right meant privileges and immunities. Therefore, protection against excessive fines was among the privileges and immunities guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges and Immunities Clause.

John Polk is a Special Counsel at Berenzweig Leonard, LLP. John can be reached at [email protected].